This report emerges from research carried out in Bosnia and Herzegovina between July 2013 and April 2014 by One World Platform for South East Europe (OWPSEE) and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) as part of a seven-country project entitled “End violence: Women’s rights and safety online”.
In this research, OWPSEE foregrounds three cases that demonstrate the ways in which violence against women (VAW) is committed through or enabled by information communication technologies (ICTs). Through this report OWPSEE hopes to bring these new forms of violence to the attention of relevant institutions, policy makers and private companies, as well as to women and men themselves.
Cases were selected by purposive sampling. Most stories were collected from APC’s mapping platform that documents technology-related VAW occurring in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the wider region1. Through this initiative, anyone who experiences or is familiar with a case of violence against women through technology can map it directly online. Out of seven potential cases, the research team selected three.
During the period of data collection, the main focus was to conduct interviews with the survivors themselves, which was possible in two of the three cases. OWPSEE also sought to document how law enforcement is responding to such crimes by talking directly to the police. This included one interview with the police and one with the Federal Police Department of the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs in Sarajevo, where relevant authorities were asked to comment on possible solutions to the case studies shared with them. Since one case study involved an on-going court trial, interviews were carried out with relevant authorities at the court houses.
III. Case studies
Technology-related violence against women does not affect every survivor in the same way. However, all three survivors we interviewed experienced psychological and emotional harm. The cases selected for this research confirm the severity of harms caused by technology-related violence, and highlight the need for these abuses to be taken seriously.
Below are snapshots of the three case studies used for the research.
How a fake Facebook profile threatened to destroy one family’s life
Sandra is a single mother whose reputation was seriously damaged by a fake Facebook profile, which misrepresented her as, amongst other things, a “stripper”, a “professional whore” and a “Durex tester”. At the time Sandra was already unemployed, but this act of violence made it even harder for her to find a job. Her children, who faced ridicule and bullying at school as a result of the violence, discovered the fake profile. She was asked not to send her children to school for the remaining week of the school term, and school authorities refused to help – even though the most likely suspect was a child from the school. Sandra felt helpless and alone, unable to both remove the fake account as well as protect her children from harm.
An obsession turns violent across digital platforms
Alma was emotionally and psychologically abused by a man across a period of four years. Admir, her abuser, claimed he was in love with her. He took photographs of her without her knowledge or consent, and integrated them into a YouTube video he uploaded along with her full name. He presented the video as a love story, whereas in reality, it was a story of abuse. Alma lived in a very small city at the time, and the video going viral caused serious damage to her reputation. She lost the trust of her parents, who grounded her and prohibited her from attending university or meeting her friends. Her mobile phone and internet access were both taken away from her. Despite Alma consistently trying to cut all contact with him, Admir would find new ways to contact her via different technological platforms. Alma felt overwhelmed with powerlessness to the point where she contemplated suicide.
When an ex-boyfriend’s violence turns digital
Nina’s ex boyfriend was sending her and her current partner serious threatening messages for almost two months. During this time, Nina was scared to leave the house, and when she did, would constantly be looking behind her to see if he was following her. Constantly receiving and thinking about the content of her abuser’s messages affected Nina’s psychological state, and she was afraid almost all the time. Finally, the violence escalated when Nina’s ex boyfriend physically attacked her current partner and beat him up.
IV. Justice through the law
In Bosnia and Herzegovina there are relevant domestic laws as well as international conventions that apply when it comes to a range of criminal offenses, including those that violate women’s rights. But when it comes to technology-related VAW, these laws and agreements appear to offer little in the way of protection.
The constitution in Bosnia and Herzegovina guarantees human rights and fundamental freedoms, specifically those in Annex 4 Article 22. Every other law in the country is then harmonised with the constitution. There are several laws in Bosnia and Herzegovina that guarantee women´s equality and women’s rights, as well as those that recognise and prohibit various forms of violence against women. Laws relevant to the scope of our research are:
Family laws in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Criminal laws in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Law on Protection from Domestic Violence
Law on Protection of Personal Data
However, there are no specific provisions related to technology-related violence within any of these laws.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a signatory to several international agreements, which help provide a framework for developing or amending pertinent domestic legislation to prohibit technology-related VAW and offer remedy for its impacts. These are:
European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 2002
International Covenant on Social, Cultural and Economic Rights, 2012
Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948
Cyber Crime Convention, 2006
However, these are rarely successfully invoked.
The legal framework is full of obstacles that prevent survivors of technology-related violence from accessing legal remedies. There are very few lawyers dealing with internet rights in the country, and survivors rarely seek justice through civil lawsuits because it is a very expensive process. For criminal convictions, law enforcement has proved to be the most significant barrier to women accessing justice in cases of technology-related VAW.
The police are the first point of contact for women facing violence, but they appear ill equipped to deal with technology-related VAW. In all three cases, the survivor’s first step was to go to the police – but they never received any help. Discriminatory attitudes towards women, the perception of threats not constituting violence, and the inability to take harassment committed online or through phones seriously all meant that women were left with little meaningful recourse.
In the case of Alma, the police did not take her story of being stalked and having her personal information disseminated online seriously. Their only response was, “It’s just love,” which left Alma entirely unprotected.
When Nina and her boyfriend were receiving open threats via mobile phone messages for over two months, the police did not take her case seriously either. Even though Nina and her partner presented all the messages they received as evidence of serious threats, the police only responded when Nina’s boyfriend was finally attacked by her abuser and beaten up.
In the case of Sandra, who was the victim of a false Facebook profile that defamed and discredited her, the police made it clear that unless the laws explicitly mentioned VAW through the use of ICT, there was nothing they could use to file charges to prosecute a perpetrator.
The Federal Police Department takes cases of technology-related violence seriously only when it comes to child pornography – or the suspicion of it. There are several successfully solved cases pertaining to child pornography; however, violence against women is not given the same attention.
Despite the fact that there is a cyber crime department, little public information is available on its investigations. There is uncertainty around whether it is equipped to deal with violations against individuals, since it tends to focus only on high-tech systems violations such as banking fraudor the hacking of security systems. There is no unit that recognises technology-related violence against women or focuses on any aspect of gender.
V. Justice through corporate remedy
i. Telephony companies
The two women who were harassed via mobile phones – Alma and Nina – contacted their telecom providers, BH TELECOM and M:tel. They asked the companies to prevent the harassers from contacting their cell phones by blocking their numbers. However neither company obliged.
In the case of Nina, the perpetrator had bought a prepaid SIM card, which did not require his identity to be verified3. In practice, companies do not know who is using their prepaid SIM cards because there is no registration requirement. Most mobile companies only require registration for home numbers and postpaid mobile phone connections – for which applicants must sign a contract after providing identification and proof of address. Moreover, in the case of Nina, her perpetrator was changing his prepaid SIM cards too often for any level of monitoring to take place.
In Alma’s case, the perpetrator would call and harass her every day. When Alma tried to complain to BH TELECOM, they informed her of a rule that states if you receive three or less phone calls from the same number in a 24-hour period, they cannot block the number. It is only if more than three calls are made, and a complaint of harassment is issued, that the company will act. Alma’s abuser was aware of these rules, and never called her more than three times a day. This rule, however, is not written anywhere on the telecom provider’s website. It is also unclear if in situations where a number is blocked, the company will block a person’s number completely or if they will simply block the connection between the violator and victim´s numbers.
Therefore, in the cases of both Alma and Nina, the telecom providers’ responses were fast but not effective at all. They were unable and unwilling to identify the perpetrator behind the number as well as to block the perpetrators from contacting the women.
Another matter of concern is the ready availability of personal data. A desk review of BH TELECOM’s policies revealed that all registered users have the ‘privilege’ of their phone numbers and street addresses being entered into the company’s public phone directory. To access this information, all that is required is knowledge of a person’s full name. A provision to remove one’s information from the directory does exist; however, it does not exist as a written rule anywhere on the BH TELECOM website or the information it provides to users. As a result, perpetrators have easy access to not only their target’s phone numbers, but also an exact location of where they live.
ii. Social media
Alma’s abuser used YouTube to perpetrate violence against her. Using photographs of Alma, he created a “love montage” for her and uploaded it onto YouTube. In the video, he used her full name. Alma contacted YouTube explaining the situation and asking them to remove the content about her. YouTube sent her an online form, which she completed and sent back. However, they never responded nor removed the video.
In Sandra’s case, a fake Facebook profile of her was set up containing her personal photos stolen from her real Facebook profile, information about her (including the school she went to and the city she lives in), and false information that she was a sex worker. The profile was online from December 2013 until 22 February 2014.
While multiple people were reporting the profile on Sandra’s behalf, Facebook finally removed the fake profile only after Sandra herself reported it. Sandra followed the following reporting process:
Report/Block —- Submit a Report (Report XY account) —- This timeline is pretending to be me or someone I know —- Pretending to be me —- For your security, you must re-enter your password to continue. Password: ________ —- Enter your phone number —— Enter the code received on your phone: _______
After 30 minutes, Facebook removed the fake profile.
However, Sandra herself was unfamiliar with options and ways to report and remove a fake profile until OWPSEE contacted her. OWPSEE helped her report the profile as per the process outlined above, and also gave her basic information on how to make her photos and information private in order to stop further dissemination of her information.
VI. Justice through other actors
During the time when Sandra’s fake profile was online, it was likely that the main suspects were most probably pupils from her son’s school. Several of the fake profile’s “friends” were children from the school, which itself had open and free WiFi. Moreover, even before the profile was set up, children would tease Sandra’s son and offend her.
Therefore, she considered the school one of the central actors who could help her in discovering the perpetrator(s).
Sandra believed that the least the school’s principal could do was to have a meeting with parents who could talk to their children and explain them that these kinds of “games” were hurtful and wrong. However, the principal and school administrators did not consider addressing the abuse as part of the school’s responsibility.
VII. Survivors’ agency and analysis
All three women survivors felt entirely unprotected by the state and unable to do anything to protect them. They did not know where to turn and felt isolated in their struggles. The most concerning element emerging from their stories was that none of the women felt they achieved justice at any point in time, or in any meaningful way. Justice has many meanings, but for all three women, it meant catching and punishing the perpetrators. This, they believed, would set an example for other potential abusers.
The women felt that the damage caused to their lives and reputations continued even after the actual violence stopped, and would continue to affect them for a long time – if not always. They realised that if something was published on about them online, it was likely to stay there forever.
Today, Sandra is afraid of someone finding articles about the fake profile, which could cause her children – who are now in high school – pain and humiliation. Alma is expecting a baby, but she is still not sure if her abuser ever “gave up”. One video of her is still online (though without her personal information), and she heard that Admir was writing a book about his life, which she could be named in. She is unsure whether he still has photos of her, and how or when he will use them. He stalked her for almost four years, and as she says, “Even now, every time the phone rings, I shiver.”
One example of women’s agency emerges from two of the three stories, where the women chose to publish their stories on other online portals. Here, they openly spoke about their cases because they all felt the need for their side of the story to be heard. Sandra says she felt relieved after being interviewed by an online portal, because even though the media attention did not significantly help her own case, it did bring public attention to the issue of technology-related VAW and the lack of legal remedy available to survivors.
All girls and women need to be aware of possible threats and dangers they may face online. According to our research, taking precautionary measures seems to be the most effective way for women to protect themselves online and reduce the possibility of being a victim of technology-related VAW.
On a community level we need more actions around raising awareness of these issues among girls and women – and also among boys and men. A variety of organisations – not only women’s groups – should be included in such actions against violence against women. Schools should host special programs to educate students about technology-related VAW, and they should implement protocols that can satisfactorily address bullying and harassment.
Local Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) should work to lobby the government to change existing laws. NGOs should also develop campaigns that gather data on how many girls and women are using technology and how many instances of violence occur.
Telecom providers, social media platforms and other intermediaries need to acknowledge that a large percentage of their users are girls and women, and that they do have the responsibility to make their users and their data safe and secure. Failing to do so, enables perpetrators to victimise girls and women.
Police and law enforcement need better training to recognise the ways in which VAW is perpetrated through ICTs, and the fact that this violence does lie within the jurisdiction of certain domestic laws and should be prosecuted accordingly.
Since Bosnia and Herzegovina is working towards becoming a European Union (EU) member and has already signed very important relevant international conventions, pressure from other EU countries is important for the government to recognise the need to acknowledge and address technology-related violence against women.
Annex 1: Excerpts from the Constitution
Article II: Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
1. Human Rights. Bosnia and Herzegovina and both Entities shall ensure the highest level of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms. To that end, there shall be a Human Rights Commission for Bosnia and Herzegovina as provided for in Annex 6 to the General Framework Agreement.
2. International Standards. The rights and freedoms set forth in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and its Protocols shall apply directly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These shall have priority over all other law.
3. Enumeration of Rights. All persons within the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina shall enjoy the human rights and fundamental freedoms referred to in paragraph 2 above; these include:
a) The right to life.
b) The right not to be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
c) The right not to be held in slavery or servitude or to perform forced or compulsory labour.
d) The rights to liberty and security of person.
e) The right to a fair hearing in civil and criminal matters, and other rights relating to criminal proceedings.
f) The right to private and family life, home, and correspondence.
g) Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
h) Freedom of expression.
i) Freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association with others.
j) The right to marry and to found a family.
k) The right to property.
l) The right to education.
m) The right to liberty of movement and residence.
4. Non-Discrimination. The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms provided for in this Article or in the international agreements listed in Annex I to this Constitution shall be secured to all persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.
6. Implementation. Bosnia and Herzegovina, and all courts, agencies, governmental organs, and instrumentalities operated by or within the Entities, shall apply and conform to the human rights and fundamental freedoms referred to in paragraph 2 above.
 The ‘region’ includes the countries from ex Yugoslavia (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia).
 See excerpts from the Constitution in Annex 1.
 For more details, read Dynamic of Technology-related VAW.
This research is part of the APC “End violence: Women’s rights and safety online” project funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGIS).